Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Asia Watch: A ‘dark horse' surges ahead

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Michael Shannon


Elections to determine the leadership of a major South East Asian city have not traditionally attracted much international attention. But Jakarta's gubernatorial race of 2017 was always going to be an exception, touching upon deep national undercurrents of religious and ethnic identity and interests of established political elites.

Jakarta's seven million voters on April 19 arguably traded competence for ethnic and religious hegemony, rejecting the city's reformist Governor, ethnic Chinese-Christian Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja, in a landslide (58%-42%) in favor of Anies Baswedan, a former minister who won the support of conservative Muslims.

Polls prior to the election spelt trouble for Ahok's campaign. Although a clear majority were satisfied with his performance as governor, 57% of capital city residents said they believed Ahok was guilty of the blasphemy charges brought against him last November - almost the same percentage that voted against him in the election.

As a protégé of President Widodo and backed by Megawati's PDI-P political machine, Ahok ran arguably the most effective, corruption-free administration to govern Jakarta in decades, moving to reduce flooding and straighten out the chaotic transport system. Even so, he alienated some of the poorest residents through forced relocations from the polluted riverside slums.

Perhaps Ahok's main achilles heel was his quick wit and occasionally sarcastic manner which ruffled feathers, never more so than in his playful riffing upon the Koranic verses that were ultimately used against him.

The massive street protests by Islamic conservatives - apparently with strong funding from Ahok's political opponents - in November and December, punctured his once buoyant campaign. A relentless counter-campaign mounted against him by Islamist groups and hardline clerics hammered the message from mosques, street banners and via social media that Ahok was an unelectable "infidel" and anyone still voting for him was a bad Muslim. Some banners also warned that those who did so would not receive Islamic rites when they died.

Best placed to benefit from Ahok's travails was Anies Baswedan, a US-educated academic and university rector who only turned to politics in the last three years. He formerly served as Education Minister under President Widodo, spearheading a program that sends bright young people to teach in disadvantaged and isolated communities. Articulate in English, he built his reputation and career upon promoting tolerant, moderate Islam.

Yet, the one-time "dark horse" candidate secured the backing of Prabowo Subianto's Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and, somewhat ironically, the sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), which form the parliamentary opposition.

Under Prabowo's guidance, Anies clearly grasped the tactical value in parading his Muslim credentials during the campaign, even to the extent of having a polite meeting with notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Habib Rizieq. The thuggish radical group had called on followers all across Java to flood the capital in order to "monitor" the election, sparking fears of intimidation and a violent reaction to a possible Ahok victory.

A massive police mobilisation prevented any significant disruption to the poll and once the result became clear, Anies was magnanimous in victory. Thanking supporters, he declared, "Our focus is social justice, ending inequality and our commitment is to safeguard diversity and unity... Jakarta is the most diverse city in Indonesia, and we are committed to take care of it."

Anies' tone contrasted with his comments made on the eve of the election, comparing the election to the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, considered a pivotal fight that consolidated the Prophet Muhammad's power, a win ascribed to divine intervention.

FPI leader Rizieq thanked Allah for the election result, announcing his followers are ready if Ahok is not jailed. (Prosecutors in Ahok's blasphemy trial have requested he serve a two-year probation, but serve a year in prison for any breach of that probation - a sentence that would not satisfy Islamist groups.)

Meanwhile, Mohammed Saleh of the paramilitary group PETA (Defenders of the Motherland), told supporters, "Now we have... defeated the Chinese governor... we have more chance to implement what we want. This includes how to prioritise Indonesian people over foreigners, including Chinese."

The influence of Prabowo, Widodo's defeated opponent in the 2014 presidential race, cannot be discounted. The former son-in-law of Suharto and an enormously rich businessman with a formidable network, Prabowo has not previously aligned with religious figures. But in rebuilding his political machine, he has since turned to the FPI and other Muslim groups.

With his protégé elected, Prabowo expressed his gratitude to Habib Rizieq and senior clerical figures, saying that religious councils played an important role in the victory.

This election has been a proxy battle for the camps that will likely square-off in the Presidential election due in 2019. Sharia-based parties have historically won only 12%-14% of the national vote, but the election shows that hot-button Islamic issues can now mobilise non-party activist groups to telling electoral effect.

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